A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter I
The successors of Newton in astronomy
Leonard Euler
Still another contemporary of D'Alembert and Delambre, and somewhat older than either of them, was Leonard Euler (1707-1783), of Basel, whose fame as a philosopher equals that of either of the great Frenchmen. He is of particular interest here in his capacity of astronomer, but astronomy was only one of the many fields of science in which he shone. Surely something out of the ordinary was to be expected of the man who could "repeat the AEneid of Virgil from the beginning to the end without hesitation, and indicate the first and last line of every page of the edition which he used." Something was expected, and he fulfilled these expectations.

In early life he devoted himself to the study of theology and the Oriental languages, at the request of his father, but his love of mathematics proved too strong, and, with his father's consent, he finally gave up his classical studies and turned to his favorite study, geometry. In 1727 he was invited by Catharine I. to reside in St. Petersburg, and on accepting this invitation he was made an associate of the Academy of Sciences. A little later he was made professor of physics, and in 1733 professor of mathematics. In 1735 he solved a problem in three days which some of the eminent mathematicians would not undertake under several months. In 1741 Frederick the Great invited him to Berlin, where he soon became a member of the Academy of Sciences and professor of mathematics; but in 1766 he returned to St. Petersburg. Towards the close of his life be became virtually blind, being obliged to dictate his thoughts, sometimes to persons entirely ignorant of the subject in hand. Nevertheless, his remarkable memory, still further heightened by his blindness, enabled him to carry out the elaborate computations frequently involved.

Euler's first memoir, transmitted to the Academy of Sciences of Paris in 1747, was on the planetary perturbations. This memoir carried off the prize that had been offered for the analytical theory of the motions of Jupiter and Saturn. Other memoirs followed, one in 1749 and another in 1750, with further expansions of the same subject. As some slight errors were found in these, such as a mistake in some of the formulae expressing the secular and periodic inequalities, the academy proposed the same subject for the prize of 1752. Euler again competed, and won this prize also. The contents of this memoir laid the foundation for the subsequent demonstration of the permanent stability of the planetary system by Laplace and Lagrange.

It was Euler also who demonstrated that within certain fixed limits the eccentricities and places of the aphelia of Saturn and Jupiter are subject to constant variation, and he calculated that after a lapse of about thirty thousand years the elements of the orbits of these two planets recover their original values..





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.